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Herman Cain Takes Florida Straw Poll By Surprise


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. To Republican presidential politics now. Businessman and former radio talk show host Herman Cain pulled off an upset yesterday. He came in first in the Florida straw poll, handily beating both Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. It's a big victory for a candidate who up to now, has drawn little media attention, and placed fifth or sixth in many national polls. In a video message he sent to his supporters after the victory, Cain said that's changing.

HERMAN CAIN: The Herman Cain train is picking up steam.

CORNISH: NPR's Greg Allen has been watching Cain and the other candidates this week, and joins us now from Orlando. Greg, this must come as a big surprise. How did Cain do it?


Well, surprise just begins to describe it, Audie. It was a big surprise. I think that although Herman Cain's not that well known nationally, here in Florida he's pretty well-known - I guess also around the country, to conservatives - as a radio talk show host. And he's filled in on Sean Hannity program. He's a very good speaker who fired up the crowd at several events over the last three days here. I talked to many delegates who said that they were impressed by his performance in the last few debates. They like his plain talk and his common sense. At an event that Cain held on Friday night, his staff had to book a new room because so many people turned out, they couldn't fit into the one they'd reserved.

So you have to keep in mind, though, that the 2,600 delegates who cast their votes yesterday are party activists, people willing to come here, spend their time, their own money. And that includes many in the Tea Party. Cain talks the talk. And here's a little bit of his speech yesterday, when he was quoting from the Declaration of Independence.

CAIN: Because it says, if you keep reading, when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. We've got some altering and abolishing to do.


CAIN: Our job: Alter and abolish.

CORNISH: All right. Well, Greg, what happened to Rick Perry? I mean, he's been leading in recent polls, including some that were conducted in Florida.

ALLEN: That's true, but he hasn't really helped himself with his performance in recent debates. In the debate here on Thursday, he took heat, both from Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, for his support of this Texas law that extends in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants. I talked to many supporters afterwards who said that they were troubled by that and - plus, some seemed disappointed he wasn't able to handle himself with more confidence in the debate.

Perry worked hard here to line up support. He held a breakfast for delegates yesterday before the vote. But he left town before the actual straw poll happened, and some delegates said that mattered. They only wanted to vote for those who were here. In the end, Perry walked away with less than half the votes of Herman Cain, and not too many more than Mitt Romney, who chose not to actively compete in the straw poll.

CORNISH: Greg, Cain says that this win in the straw poll gives him momentum in the presidential race. But does it really?

ALLEN: Well, it certainly raises his stature, and brings him to the attention to some voters who maybe hadn't considered him before. I mean, historically, the Florida straw poll has been an important indicator. Going back to the '70s in the first three that were held, the person who won - first, Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, and then Bob Dole - they went on to get their party's nomination. But of course, those candidates were all much more - better established than Herman Cain. So, you know, we'll see. All weekend, an issue that's been talked about is electability. Can a candidate appeal to the broader base he or she will need to win the nomination and the general election? I put that question about electability of Cain to Todd Catella. He's a Cain supporter from Orlando. He says that's why many Republicans here switched their votes to Cain. They think he can win.

TODD CATELLA: They want to believe in Herman Cain, but have been afraid to because he's been so low on the radar - on the national polls from the press and the media. But I believe today is going to make a statement that Herman Cain is a force to be reckoned with.

CORNISH: Greg, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney didn't actively compete in the straw poll, and neither did Minnesota congressman Michele Bachmann. Why not?

ALLEN: Well, I think, you know, the Cain result - I'm going to actually give you a little hint about that - the Romney campaign says it's avoiding straw polls on principle; the Bachmann campaign said it chose not to devote the resources that are required to compete here. What that meant is that neither spoke to the delegates making a final pitch yesterday, asking them to vote. That said, both candidates were here at the debate on Thursday, and were at the CPAC on Friday - all day long - and both were on the ballot. For Romney, it ended up getting him third-place finish, just a few votes behind Perry. And for Bachmann, it turned out much worse - she got just 1.5 percent of the vote. She finished dead last.

CORNISH: NPR's Greg Allen in Orlando. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.